“All art is about trying to see the world anew.”
It is the final morning of CLNE. Hopefully, I’ll find time this coming week to write up the varied and marvelous experiences of this conference, but for now here is the post I began directly after listening to Tobin (M.T.) Anderson’s extraordinary speech.
Tobin focused on what he termed “experimental” techniques. He noted that they are called that although they have been around hundreds of years so are not exactly truly experimental anymore. He further noted that these methods (or whatever you want to called them) are natural and often unremarked upon when used in children’s books whereas they are fussed over when used in adult books. Most important of all, he raised the idea of the book teaching the reader to read itself.
Tobin quickly blew us out of the water by reading and then analyzing Kurt Schwitters‘ “Poem 25.” It was incredible. All numbers and all poetry, performed by Tobin with remarkable brio. (Later some of us toyed with what the poem would sound like read in different languages. It is “Gedicht 25” in German, for example.) Tobin used it to demonstrate how the work itself taught the reader to read it. He noted that linguists consider that all language is a network of internal and external structures. In the case of the Schwitters’ poem, 25 means nothing until it is used in the poem. And it is all the easier for children since they don’t know that it has to mean something.
Next Tobin took us through Dr. Seuss’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and contrasted its rambling structure to that of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. After that he got me looking at another familiar book anew, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. In particular, he showed how it, like the other works he’d presented to us, was a book that teaches its readers to read it.
Tobin followed these close looks at individual books with a review of the different techniques that are used in these experimental books including meta-fiction, magical realism, typographical intrusion and play, linguistic play, and hypertext.
Tobin also spoke about his own Octavian Nothing, not an experimental book as such, but one that also teaches its readers to read it. He spoke of his careful placing of such fantasy tropes as a dragon, princess, and castle in early on in order to disrupt the readers’ thinking that this was possibly a fantasy. I loved learning this as I had gone into my reading of the book thinking that was a possible. Even the cover image had me wondering. Today, no doubt, this would be harder for anyone as the book is now so well-known as a work of historical fiction, not fantasy.
Of all the fascinating things he talked about, it was the idea of the book teaching the reader to read that most enthralled me. To take the idea further, I imagine the reader in effect creating his or her personal glossary of words, themes, phrases, and ideas to use as he or she reads the books. One that is developed in partnership with the book. It is this idea, this idea of the book (not the author) as teacher that was the most amazing thing I took away from Tobin’s talk.
Over the following days I’ve been fortunate enough to be in several conversations about this talk with Tobin and others. Last night (more in a separate post) Brian Selznick did his talk, a tour of a virtual museum, including a M.T. Anderson Memorial Wing where he riffed off Tobin’s remarkable idea. As always happens at CLNE, there has been a surfeit of intellectual and aesthetic wonder that we all will need to go home and process.